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In Tunisia, a free speech tussle could land a professor in jail

Last year a Tunisian academic complained that a member of the constitutional drafting committee had watered down free speech protections in the document.

By Correspondent / June 3, 2013



Tunis, Tunisia

Last October a Tunisian academic named Raja Ben Slama suggested on television that a top official charged with drafting Tunisia’s new constitution had watered down free speech protections in the document.

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Those remarks may now land her in jail. 

Two years ago Tunisians threw out their President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ending five decades of dictatorship. An elected assembly has since been working to construct a democratic system. On Saturday it released a final draft constitution, which must now go to a vote.

Leaders say the document safeguards freedoms and reflects compromise among often combative political parties. But critics are singling out language they say could threaten basic rights and the workings of democracy.

“Democracy isn’t just elections, it’s accepting criticism,” says Ms. Ben Slama, who is under investigation for unjustly maligning a public official. “The law must be adapted to a new reality.”

While rights may be defined in theory, their exercise is often regulated in practice. Ben Slama’s ordeal helps show why Tunisians like her want their rights guaranteed. It also shows the need to reform old laws (like the one used against her) that were written to serve dictatorship yet are still on the books.

Executive power

Tunisia’s previous constitution was enacted in 1959 under then-president Habib Bourguiba. It gave hefty powers to him and his successor, Mr. Ben Ali, including priority in lawmaking, control of the armed forces, the ability to appoint judges, and the power to name and dissolve the government at will. 

But the primary tools of control were laws regulating everything from political parties, elections, and the courts to public gatherings, media, and freedom of speech – all enforced by compliant judges and lots of police. 

Ben Ali was toppled in January 2011. The following December the 1959 constitution was scrapped, and early last year a newly-elected constituent assembly began drafting a new one. Debate has flared over what kind of system to adopt, the role of Islam, and concern for the status of women and free speech.

Meanwhile, courts have periodically used existing laws to go after critics and gadflies.

In June last year an appeals court upheld prison sentences for two men who posted caricatures of the prophet Mohammed online. In March the rapper Ala Yaacoubi, apparently still on the run from authorities, was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for his YouTube video, “The Police are Dogs.”

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